La Roja: An Interview with Jimmy Burns

Euro 2012 is moving to the quarterfinal stage and Spain has booked its entry into the quarterfinals.  The national team is arguably the best in the world, home to some of the top clubs in the world and home base for Messi, Ronaldo and a host of top players.  Today, Footiebusiness is pleased to provide our chat with Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja, a fascinating book about Spanish soccer.  Mr. Burns looks at the rise of the game in Spain through the context of history and politics, a unique approach befitting the Spanish team.

Mr. Burns spent thirty years as a senior writer at the Financial Times. He has also reported for the BBC, CNN, National Public Radio, and other outlets. The winner of the Somerset Maughan prize for nonfiction, Burns is the author of, among other titles, When Beckham Went to Spain; Maradona: The Hand of God; Barca: A People’s Passion; Papa Spy: Love, Faith and Betrayal in Wartime Spain; and most recently La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World.

Thanks to Mr. Burns. In  La Roja you look at the history of Spanish soccer through the lens of the historical and political events that were forming the nation of Spain.  Do you think that Spanish soccer is more interwoven with national history than other soccer nations?  If so why is Spain unique in this regard?

Jimmy Burns:  You can’ t really explain or understand the development of Spanish soccer without looking at the impact politics has had on it over the years.

And what makes the story of Spanish soccer particularly fascinating is the fact that its  coincides with a period during which Spain has evolved from being one of the most backward countries in European to being a modern democratic state with all its channels and complexities. Politics gives Spanish soccer its particular narrative and its dynamic.

FB: Barcelona and Real Madrid are the most recognizable clubs in Spain and its most significant rivals.  How did culture and regionalism help form that rivalry?  Are those factors still relevant today?

JB: This rivalry, which is probably the  most intense and enduring rivalry in the history of sport, had its early beginnings at the start of the 20th century- a post-imperial period for Spain when  the centralized nation-state based in the Spanish capital Madrid faced challenges from Catalonia, and other regions with a growing sense of its own cultural and social identity, including flags and language, different from the rest of Spain.

During the long dictatorship of General Franco-1939-1975-Real Madrid came to be identified by its enemies as the team of the regime, while Barca became what its motto says- mes que en club– more than a club in the sense that it became equated with a whole cultural and political movement unique to Catalonia. Denied political freedoms, the Catalans found expression for the frustrated demands in supporting their soccer club. 

While it would be unfair and unrealistic to say that Real Madrid remains Franco’s team so long after his death, the tensions between central government and Spain’s most powerful region Catalonia remains as intense as ever as does the rivalry between two great soccer clubs.

FB: The Spanish national team has risen to the top of the world soccer powers.  Has the cultural divide between Catalonia and the rest of Spain been a significant factor in the nation’s rise to soccer superiority?

JB: I think the flair and brilliance one identifies with Spanish soccer is the result of  a convergence of foreign influences- English, Latin American and Dutch in particular-  and native talent in a system of play which has been developed almost to perfection at club level by FC Barcelona where the spirited physical soccer taught by the early British pioneers in Spain has given way to a much more creative, technical game. The Spanish national team has been fortunate in recent years to have had coaches like Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque who have managed to bring together the best players from Spanish clubs and got them to play with the style of Barca, and the spirit of Real Madrid.

FB: Has the increasing amount of money in the game of soccer changed the dynamics of Spanish club soccer?  Are traditional rivalries fading because of player movement and foreign involvement?

JB: I think that more money has translated in the case of Spanish club soccer into a virtual  duopoly where  FC Barcelona and Real Madrid tend to dominate La Liga by the privileged  access they have to the bulk of TV revenues, and major sponsorship.  I believe this makes the rivalry even more exciting with clubs fielding great foreign stars like Messi and Ronaldo while investing in the development of their youth teams.

FB: Given the rather unique combination of history and sports in the book, who is your intended audience?

JB: I hope that my book La Roja will appear not just to people interest in soccer, but also to people interested in Spanish history and politics- as I’ve said it’s what gives then narrative its uniqueness.

FB: What efforts are being made to promote the book?

JB: On Google and twitter its getting some great promo.  It’s getting a good airing across all media platforms on both sides of the Atlantic-TV and radio interviews, newspaper and magazine reviews, websites, blogs, podcasts, twitters and others social networks.

All the commentary  has been positive and much of it hugely enthusiastic- I’ve picked this up on both of what I’ve read and what I have experienced directly from my growing army of fans at the speaking events I have been doing in Ireland,Britain, and Spain.

I am really looking forward to doing a couple of events in New York in the last week of June.

FB: Finally, do you have a pick for Euro 2012?

  JB: I suppose you have guessed it already- Spain-although it’s going to have to play even better than it did in the World Cup of 2010 if it is to win the tournament. I think Germany remains an important rival but generally the quality of this Euro competition is very high. I would like Spain to win the championship on its own merit.

Monday After

First time in a while that we have a full slate of MLS matches about which to post.  Before we get there, one of our readers requested some information on the young DP rule passed last Summer by MLS leadership.  Here is a link to the official story from the MLS website.  Here is a link to a story raising some of the concerns about American players.

The weekend saw the opening of the newly renovated Stade Saputo. Obviously a big moment for the Impact, but one that will cause a decrease in the team attendance thanks to the lower capacity over Olympic Stadium.  More on the attendance for the stadium opener below.

The Euro 2012 matches continued with the final group stage games paired concurrently on the various ESPN networks.  This format always leads to high drama but necessarily detracts from per channel ratings.  Once again, Twitter has been an unbeatable companion to watching the matches.  I would be curious if there are any reader Twitter recommendations for follows relating to soccer. Perhaps this will be its own post down the road.

Now on to attendance.  Struggling Philly saw a mid-week managerial change but still managed its typical 18k plus at PPL Park.  Surging Vancouver also impressed at the gate with more than 19k at BC Place.  Beautiful weather did not translate into a large crowd at Gillette with just over 12k in attendance for the Revs.  Houston continued its strong numbers at its new home with more than 22k in attendance for the arrival of FC Dallas in a big rivalry game in Texas.

The first game in Montreal’s new digs drew just over 17k.  The game was not a sellout, despite the re-opening of the facility. This is somewhat curious and bears watching.  Despite problems for LiveStrong persona Lance Armstrong, Sporting Kansas City cruised past 20k with a solid crowd for their first home match in a while.  Chivas fell just short of 13k at the Home Depot Center.


Time for Silly Season

As Euro 2012 moves forward and World Cup qualifying gets underway, we are nearing the time of year when MLS teams become linked to foreign stars and future Designated Players.  As the calendar starts to creep towards July, the transfer window begins to open for European based players and some will look to the New World for a roster spot.   This is the time of year when players like Beckham, Henry and others made their MLS debut. Teams have been willing to spend big dollars on big names for the Summer home stretch.

It remains to be seen whether the league will make similar moves in 2012.  Does MLS still need a big name player in order to make a splash?  Is there a player of the caliber of Beckham, Blanco or Henry that is willing to make the move to the United States?  Will the league’s television partners pressure the league to bring prominent DPs to the States?

Recall that the league  significantly changed its DP rule last August with an eye towards younger DPs.  Boiled to its essence, the amended DP rule allows teams that sign players 20 and under that would count as DPs while significantly lessening the salary budget.  There is a similar reduction for players 23 and under.  In real terms, the salary budget “hit” for the youngest DP’s will be only $125,000 while the older group counts at $200,00.  This significantly reduces the percentage of salary budget taken up by younger designated players while theoretically providing teams with extra motivation to pursue rising stars around the globe.  The new rule will specifically not apply to American and Canadian players.

So will the new rule prevent teams from making the big move?  Does the financial incentive still exist?

Stadium Follow-up: Red Bull Arena

Our post yesterday on the economic impacts of stadiums drew some interesting comments and e-mails, so we thought  it make sense to stay on that topic.  We were reminded of the situation in Harrison, where Red Bull Arena has been the subject of much debate and controversy.  Last year, Deadspin offered this unique take on the issues facing the relationship. Snide remarks notwithstanding, the article notes some of the substantial expenses the municipality incurred as a result. Last year, Bloomberg weighed in on the issue and noted the substantial debt load incurred by the City.

The Bloomberg article is worth a read. Like the stadiums we discussed yesterday, the Harrison project was anticipated to be part of a larger development that has not come to pass.  The article argues that town officials were mislead by promises, a common refrain among politicians involved in stadium projects.

Bloomberg recently followed up with word that a Court had ruled that the Red Bulls owe a substantial amount of property taxes to the City of Harrison.   This paragraph from the article is instructive: “Harrison, with 13,620 residents, had bet the soccer stadium would jump-start redevelopment in a community where per-capita income is 63 percent of the state average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The town borrowed $39 million in 2006 to buy and clean up the site, while Hudson County chipped in $45 million for a parking garage and the team paid $200 million to build the Red Bull Arena.”

Stadiums and Economies: Cities in Turmoil

Whatever the sport, it is axiomatic that team owners and leagues lean heavily upon municipalities to fund construction, infrastructure improvements and a myriad of other costs associated with building a new home for the local franchise.  These efforts to obtain government open often start as thinly veiled threats to leave for greener pastures, yet after a deal is struck, smiling politicians and team representatives wax about job creation, tax revenue, mixed use development and urban revitalization.    Yet, any number of economic studies reveal that sports stadiums typically fail to create the financial opportunities promised before contracts are signed and dirt is moved.

Recently, a number of MLS stadiums have generated ink in their local markets because of the disconnect between pre-construction promises and post occupancy realities.  In Bridgeview, Illinois, Toyota Park stands as one of the early examples of MLS building stadiums outside major city limits.  The Chicago Tribune recently provided this outstanding expose of what can go wrong with a small suburb dives into the stadium game .  The article suggests that tiny Bridgeview now owns the Chicago area’s largest debt burden as it struggles to pay off more than $200 million debt.   Not surprisingly, those involved blame the economy for the project’s failure to meet its goals. In what may be a “special to Chicago” twist, the article also suggests that many political figures and their cronies have benefited despite the negative impact on municipal finances.

In Philadelphia, the Inquirer is asking slightly different questions.  Chester, PA is the home to shiny PPL Park and offers fans of the Union a fantastic river-side venue to watch their team.  Yet the marriage between club and city is not worry free.  In its look at the status of PPL Park in year three, the Inquirer notes that Chester residents have yet to see the benefits of the new stadium.  The City remains a dangerous place and the occasional soccer matches do little to improve security in the area.  The stadium was intended to be part of a $500 million development which hasn’t come to fruition.  Now the City is considering levying a tax against events at the stadium and the Union fret that the financial burden will be crushing.

To be fair, stadium deals cannot be solely measured by finances or just by the impact of the immediate locale.  There are a wide array of benefits to the surrounding communities when a sports franchise is present.  However, with examples such as the above, not to mention the situation in Harrison, it is likely that cities considering building stadiums for soccer franchises will consider the above before signing on the dotted line.

Monday After

Strange weekend for the middle of a Major League Soccer campaign.  With World Cup qualifying and the Euro 2012 taking center stage, there was only one MLS match over the last couple of days. Perhaps the biggest soccer match in the United States over the weekend featured Argentina and Brazil in a much hyped friendly between the two South American powers.   The game sold out Met Life Stadium, featured a Lionel Messi hat-trick and still drew a collective yawn from the mainstream New York media.

The ESPN broadcasts were typical FIFA quality.  Bob Ley did his typically able job anchoring the studio show flanked by the omnipresent Alexi Lalas and newcomer Michael Ballack.  Ballack impressed in his new role and the studio program was its typically well produced product.   ESPN threw Kasey Keller right into the fire, pairing him with Ian Darke in the network’s primary broadcast booth.  Keller’s performance was mixed, but ESPN seems ready to heavily invest in the former US International goalie.

The coming week features the American qualifier in Guatemala. As we noted last week Instead, the home federation has sold the rights to a third party vendor who is looking to use Pay Per View to recoup its fee.  According to Soccer America, the anticipated price will be $29.95 to watch the 10:00 p.m. match.  The rights are held by Traffic Sports, which holds the rights to a number of United States World Cup qualifying match-up.  Traffic is free to sell the rights to a traditional network, but the company is betting that it will have more success on a PPV basis.

Euro 2012

On Friday, the 2012 European Championship kicks off from Poland and the Ukraine.  The tournament is arguably provides the highest level soccer tournament in the world and the entire event will be broadcast on the ESPN networks in the United States.  Many of the games will be on ESPN with a smattering on ESPN2.   There will also be extensive coverage on ESPN3 for those with access to the internet streaming site As part of its coverage, ESPN has built its ESPNFC website as a one stop shopping center for all things related to the tournament.  The site includes video, games, articles and additional in-depth coverage.  ESPN has been fairly active in promoting the tournament on its other platforms and you should see a fair amount of highlights on SportsCenter as the event moves forward.

Coverage of the tournament has also been fairly substantial on some of the other sports sites such as which will be sending Grant Wahl to the event starting on Sunday.  To check out the CNNSI coverage, click here.

In 2008 the tournament averaged more than one million viewers across the ESPN platform.  These numbers are especially impressive given that many of the matches are mid-day and there is no American team involved in the matches.  Although the tournament will likely draw solid ratings on ESPN (probably better than last time), most media outlets will not cover the games so viewership will likely  not increase as the tournament moves forward. Also, ESPN will not put any of the matches on ABC so the entire tournament will be in the cable realm.

We will keep an eye on the coverage over the next few weeks.  Drop a line with any thoughts on the tournament.